Processing change in almost paradise: The political economy and discourse of healing in Samana, Dominican Republic

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Hans C. Buechler


Cultural anthropology

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


This dissertation focuses on a small group of individuals who are using spiritual healing, a combination of Haitian vodou and Dominican catholicism, to respond to an encroaching global economy. The province of Samana, in the northeastern Dominican Republic, has experienced a fragmented development process, it being an isolated rural community experiencing a boom of tourism growth due to its location on a beach-trimmed peninsula. The government has turned to tourism and foreign investment to ease a relentless economic crisis. Not all Samana residents, however, are experiencing economic prosperity; many are seeing their standard of living decline and their quiet peninsula changing rapidly and beyond their control. In this context, individuals use illness and healing experiences to process the ineffable transformations of modernization. Illness and healing are multivocal symbols that inform, reflect and refract competing ideologies.

The first part of this study outlines the setting, my theoretical and methodological approaches, the social, cultural, political, and economic context, and then explain the position of a healer vis-a-vis larger religious and medical systems. The second part, using case studies and narratives, illuminates the myriad meanings of healing. On one level, I bring to light individual responses in adverse circumstances, focusing on how healers enter this role through their experience of healing their own pain. On another level, I link healers and social action through community as healers use this forum to address their personal and class-based identities. Healers also serve their communities and I examine this in the context of competing religions in the area. I show how healing, spirit possession and the spirit pantheon are all tools used to challenge and resist changing notions of Dominican identity, particularly as that identity is being reconstructed to serve the needs of a capitalist system. Overall, I seek to show how the issues individuals grapple with are rooted in larger regional and international events and influences but are manifested in their daily lives and brought to the forefront in the context of healing activities.


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